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The Last Boy Scout

L-R: Lenny White, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea return to Return to Forever on this year's LP Forever (Concord).
Martin Philbey

With a monumental career that spans more than 40 years with hundreds of recordings and scores, jazz giant Stanley Clarke doesn't have many mountains left to climb at 60. But he is still looking for them.

"Man, there's still so much music to be played and that's what I truly enjoy doing," says Clarke from his Topanga Canyon home near L.A. "Touring can occasionally get tiresome, but playing live for people, getting that immediate reaction from them, it just never gets old."

Clarke comes to town Thursday with longtime cohort and world-renowned pianist Chick Corea as Return to Forever IV. Clarke and Corea first worked as Return to Forever in 1972, and their group was integral to the birth of jazz fusion. The historic ensemble has gone through its share of lineup changes over the years; current members include Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Frank Gambale.

As a teen, Clarke heard what Sly and the Family Stone bassman Larry Graham was doing and expanded it exponentially. Along with Jaco Pastorius, he set the modern standard for bass guitar, taking it from merely a timekeeper to a lead instrument. His early solo albums, Stanley Clarke (1974), Journey to Love (1975) and the monumental School Days (1976), are almost required listening for any serious bass student.

"Larry Graham was obviously a big influence on me," explains Clarke, "but he really only had one lick. I just took that to extremes [and] found ways to expand on it."

Originally from Philadelphia, Clarke arrived in New York City at 19 and immediately found work as a session player, as well as gigs with jazz greats like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz and others.

"Back in those days, New York was the place to be," says Clarke. "Word would just get around that Horace Silver or Miles Davis were holding auditions. I went to audition for Horace and it was a real audition, maybe 30 guys in a room, and Horace was up there on the stage. And he'd say 'next' and the next guy would walk up and maybe play a couple of minutes, and he'd holler 'next.' It was like a Fellini movie for bass players.

"I actually didn't get that gig," Clarke adds, "but Kenny Smith had something come up and about three weeks later Horace called and asked me if I could do the tour."

The mind boggles that a 20-year-old could compete at such a high level, but Clarke credits it to preparation.

"I was in the Boy Scout program, I mean really into that stuff," Clarke chuckles. "And their motto is 'Be prepared.' And it was like our troop leader was preparing us for war. I'd think, 'Why are we firing these .22s, why are we saluting the flag 30 times a day?' That whole 'Be prepared' thing has stuck with me throughout life and that is how I was even at 20. I was confident because I prepared well."

Clarke also recalls those heady first years in New York as extremely busy.

"I constantly had sessions. I'd work on a Campbell's soup commercial in the morning, and do a Revlon commercial in the afternoon," he says. "That's how I met Herbie Hancock, doing a Revlon commercial. That's just how the scene was."

Clarke arrived on the New York jazz scene only months after Miles Davis had recorded Bitches Brew, the 1970 Columbia album that shocked the jazz world and attracted a sizable rock audience. Clarke calls it "world-changing."

"I thought that was the most creative thing anyone had done in a long time," he recalls. "I met Lenny White, who'd played on that, and said, 'What the hell were you guys thinking?'

"He really couldn't explain it beyond Miles's ability to get all these creative people in one spot and stimulate them to try things. Much of Bitches Brew was extemporaneous.

"It excited me for several reasons," Clarke continues. "It was a long double album, which wasn't common in jazz. And it had that crazy cover and the words 'Bitches Brew' so prominent on it. That may have been the first album ever to have that kind of provocative language on display. It seemed revolutionary."

Bitches Brew was also fundamental to the formation of Clarke's own group.

"Chick [Corea] had played on that album," he says. "He'd seen how Miles put it together, so of course all the possibilities that Bitches Brew showed were in our minds when we formed Return to Forever in '72."

That period also spawned the fusion groups Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, many of whose members had been part of the Bitches Brew sessions.

"It was an exciting time to be in jazz," Clarke recalls. "We were doing these long tours, playing all over the world to huge, appreciative audiences, and we were all doing a lot of recording."

Clarke wrote the title track for Return to Forever's second album, 1972's Light As a Feather (Polydor).

"We were in London and had been playing a lot, and Chick said we should just take a day and go record," he says. "We were so young and dumb, we didn't even know if London had studios," he laughs. "We found a place that came with a 19-year-old engineer and we recorded that entire album in four hours."

Clarke says Corea approached him early on and told him he needed to be composing pieces for the band.

"Chick said, 'Come on, man, I can't write everything,' and he told me if I'd write something, he'd use it as the album title," the bassist reflects. "And he was true to his word, which he has always been with me. I mean, come on, Chick's tune 'Spain' is on that album and it honestly would've made more sense to title that album Spain, because that track was just fantastic and it got a lot of attention."

While playing remains Clarke's primary emphasis, he is a world-class producer as well as a composer for film and television. He credits Corea with sparking his creativity.

"Chick just kept encouraging me to compose and try new things," Clarke recalls. "This is why I always tell people you have to be careful what you say, especially to young guys coming up. Having someone of Chick's ability and creativity supporting me and gently prodding me to take another step was the springboard for me. I owe a lot to Chick Corea."

An extremely busy composer and producer these days, Clarke's main focus outside music is fitness. He works out and walks in the mountains near his home.

"I don't like to get tired and down on tour, so I try to train as much as I can, just keep myself in good shape," he says.

As for fun, Clarke says when he really wants to relax and lay back, "I go out on tour with my old friend George Duke. He's such a wacky, funny guy to be around and those tours are just like a vacation. I just pack my bag and say, 'Honey, I'll be back in a few weeks.'"

Clarke, whose mother was an opera singer, says he didn't choose bass as his instrument, it chose him.

"I was late on the day when everyone got to pick their instruments, and when I got there the bass was all that was still open," he laughs. "This is why I've always stressed to my kids to be on time whatever you're doing."

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